I was born in a town that never had a stop light. But it had so many other things. A toy store. An ice cream shop. A library. Two department stores. A movie theater. Good schools aplenty. Baptist, Methodist and Episcopal churches.
We had banks and a football field, And a hospital called Our Community, where three doctors – including my father – treated patients.
I was born at Our Community Hospital, along with hundreds of other children from the southern tip of Halifax County in Eastern North Carolina. My father spent workdays seeing patients in the office next door, then stepped through the bushes to the hospital – mending broken bones, delivering babies, comforting people during their final hours.
In the 1970s, the high schools consolidated, moving to a new building in an empty field miles from town. With no high school, the town lost its center. And that loss seemed to snowball, as businesses closed one by one and people moved away.
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Too many cherished things disappeared, those things that breathed life into my hometown while I was growing up. The Dixie Theatre is now an empty lot. The third-generation pharmacy (one of two in town) still stands, as do a few businesses trying their best to hang on.
Our Community still drew the sick of the community to the healers, until Dec. 31, when it shut the doors.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Our Community since I learned of its closing. It’s happening all over Eastern North Carolina – small communities losing the hospitals that have held them together for decades. Now the nearest hospital, vital to any community, is 20 miles away.
A better time
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a complicated relationship with hospitals. I loved visiting my father there, waiting by the baby nursery for the blinds to open up and for him to show me the babies he had delivered.
But when I was 11, my father became a patient himself, gravely ill far away in Norfolk, Va., and what had been a place of healing and the joy of tiny babies became something for me to fear. I never understood why he wanted to work in a place where everyone was sick. But he was a bit of a puzzle master, drawn by his need to help others and the complexity of problems as he pieced together the answers.
My father recovered. He returned to his practice and to Our Community, no doubt with a better understanding of how to treat patients in his care.
The old building where I was born now sits vacant, its windows boarded, its crumbling walls filled with weeds as high as the roof. (The new Our Community, which opened in 1992 down the road, is the one that just closed.) When I drive by, I remember my last visit with my grandfather, who died there. I think of my friend, Barbara, who began her nursing career as a candy striper, and how those summers spent in the halls of Our Community led her to her career in the neonatal ICU at Emory. There’s Carol, who had worked there with my dad since she was a teenager. And I hear echoes of my father whistling, as he went about his work.
Daddy retired twice: once at 75 and for the second time when he was 80 and by then the only doctor in town.
When news of the hospital’s closing began to circulate, a friend posted a picture of the old building on Facebook, and the stories began to fly. People whose parents had worked there, or like me were born in the old hospital, shared stories of a better time, of all they learned from the dedicated staff.
And from the son of one of my father’s nurses came this story: As a young practitioner, my father’s emergency room stitches were sloppy, not up to Mrs. Ayscue’s standards. “Teach me,” he said, so she brought in a cross stitch kit – a picture of a dog – and my dad completed it, learning in the process how to sew a proper stitch in his patients. Daddy made a frame for it, my friend said, though I don’t recall ever seeing it.
The doctor becomes the patient
On Feb. 6 five years ago, Daddy became the patient again, this time at Our Community. The “new” hospital, now 25 years old, bore little resemblance to the state-of-the art facilities I’m used to. The bed where he lay might possibly have come from the original building, with its crank handle for raising up and lowering a patient.
“I’m not going to get better,” Daddy told me in the quiet of that afternoon. He didn’t need fancy machines to tell him what his body could.
One by one, the hospital staff peeked into the room to see him. They were his community, really, in a way our family could never be.
In his final years of practice, Daddy’s patients were much like the town – poorer and older, according to a December report in North Carolina Health News. Seventy percent of patients at Our Community were on Medicaid or Medicare. Hospital revenue and the patient population had been shrinking for years. And so after more than 70 years serving the health needs of Scotland Neck, the board had no choice but to close.
This story has been told across dozens of towns in Eastern North Carolina, towns that thrived and raised their own for almost two centuries before piece by piece, they began to crumble. For most of my life, I’ve wondered why, but the answers are as complicated as my father’s most puzzling patient.
No, The Neck never had a stop light. But the imaginary one seems to flash “caution” at every turn.
Susan Byrum Rountree may live in Raleigh, but she will always be from The Neck. She can be reached at email@example.com.